First up for today it’s a slightly-tweaked article from one of the players – more commonly identified as “editorial0” – about where shadowrunners come from. Like most such submissions, this one is worth a couple of bonus karma points.
The Gangland Blues
Most Shadowrunners come out of the gangs in some fashion. Even if they were never formally affiliated with a gang, a lot of Shadowrunners found work through gangs. They might have been drug mules, hired guns, or just helped a relative in a gang.
Gangs don’t have a lot of power themselves, but they all know who does. If you need to find anyone, gangs can probably help simply because they are the lowest common denominator. Physical characters, particularly toughs like Orks and Trolls, can easily get their start in a gang. They’re more likely to survive on the streets, and their meaty prowess helps them develop beat people up – a classical gang gateway to greater things and chances to develop other talents. Particularly tough guys can dominate a gang… or go on to find work in a more professional setting.
Most gangs work, indirectly, for a major Syndicate. Consider your average Thrill Gang. They claim some turf and defend it. They probably get some money from the locals, both through protecting them from rival gangs, through theft, through providing minor illegal services, and through fear and intimidation. But that’s not much. They have a few contacts around, and likely have some allegiance to a much larger gang organization.
To really make money, gangs work for a syndicate. Gangs move illegal products for the syndicates, provide additional eyes and ears, and are sometimes called in to fight as well. Syndicates don’t rely on gangs and always try to have their own explicit turf, but use gangs as tools whenever possible. After all, gangers are eminently disposable.
Syndicates are the Big Boys of the crimes world. This includes the Mafia and Yakuza, but also the Seolpa Rings, Tongs, and other mobs. For a lot of reasons, most of them were originally strictly ethnic organizations, but they’re almost all reasonably flexible now.
Syndicates get by just by acting like a cross between a large, national gang and a corporation. They may research new technology and own properties, but they live on the decidedly shady side of town and dominate areas through force as well. They usually require protection money, but aim for loyal blocs of power more than for gathering raw cash.
As mentioned, Syndicates work to bring street gangs, or sometimes even thrill gangs, into their fold. Gangs form their first-line recruitment pools, as well as a convenient way of distributing illegal materials without risk. After all, anyone who’s done well in a gang has demonstrated that they’re both loyal and willing to break the law in exchange for modest improvements in their situation. What more could a criminal organization ask for?
Syndicates play in a higher arena than gangs, too. They have ample legal business to look after, and they use legal and illegal maneuvers in tandem. If someone needs some illegal firearms, it’s a simple matter to buy them openly through one company, then arrange for the items to be “stolen” and sent off to a syndicate-bound dealer.
Syndicates also need and offer training for various kinds of characters. Gangs rarely deal in anything more than toughs and street punks. Syndicates, though, need everything from front-line cannon fodder to deckers to elite assassins to the magically skilled. And they are prepared to offer training to the talented.
Syndicate “boot camps” train their candidates in the basics of their chosen specialty, but they keep and eye out for those with real talent. Those prospects get sent on to more specialized mentors and can receive excellent gear.
Syndicate work is good, relatively speaking. Most syndicate boys and girls don’t work very hard or very often, and get paid well enough for their efforts, with a lot of opportunity to rise through the ranks for good service. Skilled and loyal individuals make out very well. The downside of working for a syndicate, however, comes in the loyalty part. Namely, they expect it to exist. If it doesn’t, things are bad. Very bad. They don’t have constant demands on you like corporations, but syndicates expect you to go into real danger whenever necessary for the good of the family.
Despite this, you can leave a syndicate fairly easily as long as you don’t totally cut yourself off, and many Shadowrunners do come out of the syndicates. The only real problem is that you probably have a lot of contacts, friends, and fixers nestled amongst the warm bosomy syndicate, and pissing them off is bad. Syndicate leaders don’t really need everyone on their staff all the time, because they deliberately over-recruit in case of a gang war. If you’re still their friend but make your own money and keep yourself sharp most of the time, no one will complain. Just don’t forget your friends once you’ve made it big.
Perhaps surprisingly, former police make fine shadowrunners, and more than a few of the very best came out of Lone Star or a local police department. The simple fact is that police understand the illegal side of the street very well, they usually have friends (often powerful ones) in the local security services (whether governmental, corporate, or shadow), they know how to keep casualties down on both sides, and they can run an investigation like nobody’s business. That makes for one very, very good Shadowrunner. Even those who don’t run the shadows themselves may choose to offer their services as Private Investigators and the like.
SWAT personnel, and other forms of high-impact, high risk security people tend to make very good Shadowrunners within certain fields. Even after formal retirement, they may offer their services for counter-terrorism and hostage rescue operations for groups which can’t afford public exposure. Even crooks and corporations need saving.
Magically-skilled investigators, or those with experience in taking down magical criminals, can essentially write their own ticket. Skills like these are almost priceless (even “mundane” investigation skills are extremely valuable) when serious magical threats loom.
Life on the Corporate Bloc
It probably comes as no surprise that many Shadowrunners emerge from the ranks of company men. Corporations have a need for skilled, or at least competent, guards and one can hardly overestimate the value of expert computer personnel. Corporations hire the magically skilled, too, since research (and security) can make a lot of money.
Most corporations have at least a small semi-military or special operative cadre, but usually these are hired from the shadows or came over from the Desert Wars. Simply put, corporations don’t usually view training Special Forces soldiers as cost-effective, since they can just go out and hire Shadowrunners. The only reason they have any at all is because they don’t want to become totally dependant on the shadows and occasionally feel a need for personal loyalty.
The upsides of corporate life are clear: good living, clean homes, the ability to relax in a secure environment, and a known set of allies. The downsides are also pretty obvious: you’re employed by someone else and work to their schedule, you never get paid what you think you’re worth, and you could be fired at any time. Fortunately, Company Men don’t usually see the same kind of routine that everyday-Joe security guards live almost every day. If on assignment, they’re on a strict bodyguard plan, or sipping soykaff in a security bunker waiting for a site intrusion, or maybe off hunting those damn devil rats who’ve been chewing through the underground cabling in the basement.
It’s still a pretty exciting life, and many Shadowrunners do go to work for corporations on at least as semi-permanent basis at some point in their careers. The perks are too good, particularly if you’re getting old (or just feeling slow) and want to cash out of the freelance lifestyle you get on the streets.
For those working their way up the corporate ladder, company work offers a chance to hone their skills in a controlled setting. Corporations offer training and equipment and will make a sizable investment in talented individuals. When the contract is up, you can always leave and go work for some other company, or go freelance yourself.
On Not Getting Shot in the Military
Since some people don’t quite seem to “get” this, we’re going to make a point up-front. Just being in the military does not make you an incredible combat-monster-killing-machine-badass who can massacre small armies for fun. No, these things are reserved for people who actually have talent, like The Punisher and Captain America, who were both superheroes. And never actually existed.
Right, now that that’s out of the way, we can look at what you might actually get in the military.
A modern military in Shadowrun uses a lot of incredibly awesome gear and a lot of training. On the other hand, they want to be able to put the expensive stuff back in the armory when your enlistment is up. You won’t see infantry with 500,000 nuyen Wired Reflexes, but you may well see internal radios and smartgun links on infantrymen. Soldiers are well-trained and expected to carry either a light machine gun, or battle rifle or smaller submachine gun, grenades, several day’s supply of food, a couple mines, battlefield electronics kit, a melee weapon, good body armor, and some solid tools. Some carry even more gear than that! As such, infantrymen usually have Body and Strength ratings of at least 4.
Actual Special Forces are often the equivalent of Shadowrunners – although usually focusing more on Skills and Attributes than heavy cyberware or magic – or even better. They usually have access to the latest and greatest equipment (though mostly light-weight), and in the Sixth World urban missions training is almost as important as battlefield experience. Because of this, they may slide happily into the Shadows, where they put their skills to use for more money than a government pension. Military characters would normally tend towards patriotism, which sets them apart from many others. After all, a character who loves his country may forego many opportunities that others take up. These characters normally have no problem messing with syndicates, corporations, and criminals, however.
But the other angle the military gets into involves riggers. It should come as no surprise that a lot of riggers get their start in the military, because once you’ve plugged your brain into an LAV, or military helicopter, or a tank, it’s hard to ever find something to compete with the rush. Trying to substitute “normal” vehicles doesn’t work. It’s the difference between driving a Lamborghini Diablo and a Volkswagen Beetle with a half-blown engine.
Because of this, military riggers not infrequently go to work for corporations or the shadows, where they can hopefully find some funding for their very expensive addiction. Rigger airshows or rigger-based combat sports are also favorite choices. Riggers just plain need regular infusions of expensive gear to feed their habit.
Military deckers do exist, but these fellows work rather differently from everyday shadowdeckers. They build “war-code” viruses designed to basically annihilate everything the enemy can do over the Matrix, while attempting to constantly harden government systems from attack. Their computer knowledge and coding skill tends to the extreme, but they don’t have system-cracking expertise like “normal” deckers. That said, they do sometimes enter the shadows, because their pay is not really top-rate.
Corporations find the existence of these jokers seriously unfunny, because a war-code virus attack might well take down their entire Matrix system. (And possibly kill every office worker, relaxing employee, or corporate kid plugged in via datajack at the time.) They certainly fear the fact that stronger governments have thousands of infantrymen and armored vehicle formations and sea-fleets. They fear the fact that government deckers can obliterate their business (potentially in secret) even more. Corporations frequently try to lure these deckers into the private sector to toughen their systems against the latest virtual viral attacks.
Magic is pretty rare in the military. Corporations may deploy combat mages to neutralize magical attacks, but the military simply can’t afford the sheer scale of magical investment. Aside from which, hermetic mages take a long time to train and aren’t very good with military discipline, and shamanic types are worset. And they are vulnerable to sniper attacks. So you won’t find them as infantrymen, except for occasional squad support in guerrilla warfare situations.
As a result, magical types are used, but mostly at a higher level. Magical resources are well-trained, often coming out of college, and then commissioned as officers. Like other military specialists, they usually hang around a large group. Normal activities include setting wards, summoning large numbers of watchers, and sometimes summoning bigger spirits to go on patrol. Many also practice medical skills, since a single spellcaster can really help with the most lethal wounds, freeing doctors for other, less severe cases. Anesthesia spells (with Light drain) are also popular.
Physical Adepts are another matter entirely. Experienced physads can find a place in special forces units, while late bloomers (magically speaking) sometimes emerge from within a military’s tough physical training regime. The former usually want to use their talents in dangerous situations (the whole point of being a physad). The latter usually get roped into it somehow.
Mercenary companies of unusual professionalism also fall into this category.
Secret Agent… Super Dragon!
Spies and other government agents (outside the military) are alive and flourishing in Shadowrun. Espionage does a land-office business in the Sixth World, as everyone and their brother lives by information. The question of just whom you’re spying on, and why, and how, has changed a lot.
Spies can be divided by how they spy more than who, specifically, they’re spying on. Some use technological means, like wireless bugs or micro-drones, to keep track of conversations or the comings and goings of suspicious individuals. Some are people-people, the live bait that ferrets out enemy agents at home or potentially turn-able individuals abroad. Some are dataminers, skilled at putting together bits of public information to reveal deeper secrets. Some are the human assets themselves, who might have sold out a terrorist group or nation alike for cold, hard cash (or sex, or revenge, or any of the other motives people have).
Magic put new strains and new opportunities in espionage. Magicians can, with some difficulty, locate and expose almost any spy. On the other hand, they can be fooled, resisted, or countered, and not everyone has access to magical resources. On the active side, magical espionage can be difficult to trace or counter without magical assets of one’s own.
But spies are not the only government agents around. Paramilitary counter-terrorist units and elite investigation agencies exist too, and they have their own brand of elite men and women. Counter-terrorist units, much like federal SWAT teams (but with better gear and less open support), are absolutely necessary in keeping some kind of order in the chaotic Sixth World.
At the lowest level you get what are basically thugs. The aspiring crooks, you might say. These are young turks looking to prove themselves. They’re not necessarily stupid, but they don’t have a million nuyen worth of cyberware, or a collection of custom gear, or half the programs on the planet run through a drek-hot deck. People on this level are often young, maybe even children. They want to prove themselves just so somebody gives them a chance at something. They don’t want to wind up as Squatters, or even worse, street people.
Depending on their psychology, their actions would be very different from person to person. One might run at the first sign of trouble, while another might see a chance to prove his combat chops. Others might be too drugged up to make rational decisions. Just remember that they’re desperate. If they have any firearms, their use will remain limited to “spray gunfire”.
Motive-wise, the people down on this level need something, anything, and are willing to do what they have to, to get it. If that means drug-muling for a gang, then so be it. Frankly, many of them look upon gang slavery as a step up in the world. A few of these will, if they survive and claw their way up, find they have magical talent or get a chance to play with computers. Most rely heavily on their physical abilities.
The only real advantage to anyone else is that aspiring shadowrunners work cheap. You can get a dozen street kids to help carry stolen goods for 20 nuyen each. For a few hundred, you can hire a couple of thugs to follow you. They won’t have much skill, but you can’t beat the price. Paying in decent gear can be ever better, because aspiring shadowrunners often can’t even get to legit stores. Putting in a good word with the right characters, or offering some training, is probably best of all.
Aspiring shadowrunner player-characters should usually be built on about 30 points, and should be limited to a maximum of 12 points in anything. That’s actually pretty good – the average man in the street is built on 0 points and notable NPC’s at this level are usually built on about 20 – but these are player characters, and it’s no fun to play an incompetent, and rarely much fun to play an ordinary person. You can be incompetent or ordinary in real life without bothering with dice and rulebooks.
The game master may even be generous, and hand out a gang membership or a few bonus contacts for free. It’s appropriate enough at this level.
This does mean that you can’t play a runaway rich kid, or an adept (much less a full mage) without special permission from the game master. To accommodate this, the game master should probably consider handing out a few more character points, as opposed to karma points, later on. Let that young street tough hit adulthood, or that talented dabbler realize their full magical potential.
One (big) step up, you have the Amateur circuit. These are no pros, but they get the job done. You start seeing low-level datathieves and even magicians just learning their trade. Toughs are still more common, and have usually signed on with a gang or syndicate. They have light armor, a reliable firearm, and some kind of communications device (usually, a pocket telephone). This may not sound like much, but it makes a huge difference to them. They’ve made it somewhere, and suddenly day-to-day survival isn’t the biggest problem in their life.
Amateurs may cost a few hundred for a day’s work, and that work can be more complicated. Gunmen understand how to handle basic tactical situations, like covering and suppressing fire, but they won’t be very determined. Toughs (particularly orcs and trolls) can competently wield a melee weapon or punch out an opponent, and make good back-up.
On the electronic side of life, you won’t find any deckers. You might find people to set up simple overload-their-mainframe attacks, or to deliberately attract attention away from you, or who can help fix up electronic stuff (including anything you might steal). With time and effort, they could probably break into a safe on the cheap.
It’s not impossible to find cheap magical assistance, either, but you are limited to very inexperienced spell-slingers working with a small selection of powers, and maybe a weak spirit. They can still provide watchers. Amateur magicians are just practicing their powers, though, and can’t reliably back up anyone in a fight.
Amateur-level player characters can usually be built on about 40 points, and can have up to 18 points in one item with a good explanation. Once again, that’s actually quite impressive; “normal” amateurs are built on about 30 points, like aspiring-level PCs.
Once again, it may be appropriate to hand out six more character points later on, allowing magical types to upgrade to full masters and other characters to pick up a some attribute or skill points on the cheap.
This is pretty much the default starting level for mid-level street campaigns, and for most characters in Shadowrun IV – promising, but just starting out as true shadowrunners.
The middle ranks are held by Professional rank criminals. Crime really doesn’t pay all that well, so you see Low lifestyles and a lot of rough customers. You can expect the same skills as before, but with real deckers who can manage Blue and Green systems, mages who sometimes know what they’re doing and can use their power for defense and well-placed spell support, armed mercs with some pretty accurate shooting and solid armor, or thugs you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley. Likewise, they’re more determined. You will have pay considerably more for the privilege, however – at least a month’s Low lifestyle for a decent job. They are more than flexible about payment terms, and might be willing to risk the job in exchange for stealing some decent loot themselves.
One additional form of criminal who appears here, but rarely in the lower-levels are swindlers and pickpockets. It’s hard to do either for very long without either getting to Professional living or getting arrested: failure doesn’t get you very much except three hots and a cot.
Professional-level player characters are built on 50 points, and can spend up to 28 points in any given category and up to 24 with a good explanation. They’ll usually have a pretty good reputation and a good range of contacts. As usual, notable NPC’s at this level are built like the player-characters from one level down – about 40 points and no more than 18 in any one item.
At this level it should no longer be necessary to hand out any actual character points: the only reason for it would be to allow magical types to upgrade their abilities – and they should already have been able to buy master-level talents. The only place to upgrade to is Archmage – and those are literally one in a million. Allowing them – or any 30-point ranking – is already entirely optional.
Another big step up, you start to see Elite criminals. These are men and women who’ve made it big. They don’t always live incredible lives of luxury, but they make at least as much as a reliable corporate worker and enough to spare on supplies. That takes doing, even in Shadowrun, and you can expect to see serious cyber, skilled magicians, Olympic-levels of physical training and/or extreme mental abilities, impressive training in several areas, and expensive cyberdecks running the hottest programs. These… are basic player characters.
You also see the kind of people who don’t fit in perfectly with the Shadowrunner world, but overlap it. Bounty hunters, detectives, spies, and the like.
Elite player-characters are, of course, built on a base of 60 points, and can spend up to 24 in any one category without an explanation. If the game master allows them to spend 30 in a category – with or without a good explanation – they can start expecting to see neuroborgs, lesser dragons, major free spirits, archmagi, characters with all their attributes at near-maximum, and other aberrations of nature. Elite-level NPC’s are – once again – simply built as player-characters of one level down. After all, the game revolves around the player characters, and there must be some reason for that.
Next up, we see Master level shadowrunners, and these are the best of the best. Master Shadowrunners might well kill a dozen men before breakfast, save a neighborhood afterward, then rip off a corporation for a fortune afterward. Master shadowrunners don’t consider corporate goons a sufficient threat to bother pulling out their own guns in response. They stare most threats in the eye and tell them, “Run home to Mama,”… and danger does it. They don’t steal fortunes. They make then, then steal them, then steal the insurance money, then steal all the companies involved.
Generally you don’t build master-level shadowrunners – or simply build them as Elites with a bunch of extra karma to spent – but if you want to, you can build player-characters of this class on a base of 70 points (and no spending restrictions) and NPC’s on 60 (only allowing one category over 24). If you let your players build characters like this, you can expect to see archmage-dragons, AI’s, super-trolls with millions of NY worth of cyberware, riggers with major military vehicles, and similar monstrosities.
The End Gamers
There is another level above that, but characters with that level of power don’t see much play. End-game shadowrunners are capable of changing the nature of the world. They have so much karma that things simply happen around them, and governments tremble in fear at what they might do if pissed. Characters at this level have been known to get bored and start to work on altering global magic, changing the face of society, and sometimes taking out the Japanese Navy. These characters don’t really care about money.
Generally there’s no point in building player-characters like this. What would they do? NPC’s like this can be – of course – built as master-level player-characters, but the only real point to doing so is to see what their limits are. The players tend to become – quite rightfully – upset when confronted with NPC’s who don’t have to roll for things and who have abilities which break the rules of the game.
Will the Real Shadowrunners Please Stand Up?
You can call yourself a Shadowrunner just by being available for hire, but everyone has different standards. Usually, any criminal will not consider anyone more than one level below themselves to be a “real” shadowrunner. (Funny how that works, eh?) That doesn’t mean they won’t hire people low on the totem pole. They simply tend to think of themselves as “real” shadowrunners and set their standards appropriately.
Fortunately, player-characters – who are generally obviously moving up and meant for better things – tend to be an exception to the rule. They can often be two levels below others and still be considered “real shadowrunners”.